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"Hottentot Venus" laid to rest 200 years after her abduction

By limbic in News
Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 01:38:51 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)

"...Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly, the show's promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the "Hottentot Venus"...Death in Paris a few years later treated the young woman...little better than life. She was carved up by Napoleon's surgeon, who made a cast of her body, pickled her genitals and brain, and put her skeleton on display in a museum." Chris McGreal, "Coming Home", The Guardian (UK), 21/02/2002 [cite]

The story of Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus, concerns the ritual humiliation and violation of a young African woman who was abducted to Europe in 1809 and subjected to vile humiliations and brutality.

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For 5 years she was paraded semi-naked across Europe as a sexual freak known as the 'Hottentot Venus'. She became an icon of racial inferiority and black female sexuality. Her large buttocks (steatopygia), a feature of her people, was of particular fascination to European spectators. She was made to display her naked buttocks and vagina to the mobs, ostensibly to demonstrate their "excessive size". [cite]

She became the focus of both research by contemporary racial scientists (who sought to use her as "proof" of the inferiority of the African "race") and the Abolitionist movement, who saw her treatment as a graphic example of the inhumanity and brutality meted out to slaves and other 'inferior' people both in Europe and abroad.

[ This French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot" illustrates the sensation generated by the spectacle of "The Hottentot Venus" ]

Sarah died alone in 1815 at the age of 25, her final living humiliation being invasively examined by a team of 'scientists' for three days. [cite]

Immediately after her death she was autopsied by French anatomist Baron Cuvier(1769 -1832) who "had her body cast in wax, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were preserved, and displayed at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until as recently as 1974." [cite]

According Lola Young, writing in the UK's Guardian newspaper, in the 5 years Sarah was in Europe "she was written about, drawn in cartoons, became the subject of a play, was referred to in a court case and the House of Commons - and yet hardly anyone today knows about her significance in 19th- century abolitionist struggles or in the development of "scientific" racism." [cite]

To this day few Europeans have even heard of her.

Sarah's remains were returned to South Africa from France in May 2002. She is to be buried in Hankey, near the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape, South Africa on the 9th August 2002.  A memorial in her honour is to be built near the South African Parliament in the near future.

Reflecting on what happend to this woman in London and Paris brings to mind a comment by the character Marlow in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as he looks over London from the Thames estuary:

"And this also...has been one of the dark places on earth."

Sarah Baartman 1790 - 1815. RIP.

For more information on see:

[The following links found via "The Monstrous Feminine in Literature and Art"]

Sara's Story - a highly recommended introduction.

Coming Home - another excellent introduction this time from The Guardian.

Image of the Black Female in Western Art - A fascinating exhibit from Newcastle University in Australia.

The Life and Times of Sara Baartman - "The Hottentot Venus"  a review of the critically acclaimed film by Zola Maseko

The Seductive Temptress: The Hottentot Venus

World Archaeological Congress on the Repatriation of the remains of Sarah Baartman

News Articles

Sarah Baartman to Be Buried in Eastern Cape - All Africa.com

The Return of the Hottentot Venus - Africana.com

Fetching Saartjie - All Africa.com

Return of 'Hottentot Venus' unites Bushmen - BBC Online

'Hottentot Venus' goes home - BBC Online

'Hottentot Venus' burial wrangle laid to rest - Independent Online (SA

Khoi bodies litter SA's museums - Sunday Times (SA


Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business

A sculpture of Sarah by Willie Bester, a South African artist [image][story]


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Related Links
o cite
o [cite]
o This
o cite [2]
o Baron Cuvier
o [cite] [2]
o [cite] [3]
o The Monstrous Feminine in Literature and Art
o Sara's Story
o Coming Home
o Image of the Black Female in Western Art
o The Life and Times of Sara Baartman
o The Seductive Temptress
o World Archaeological Congress
o All Africa.com
o Africana.c om
o All Africa.com [2]
o BBC Online
o BBC Online [2]
o Independen t Online (SA
o Sunday Times (SA
o Africans on Stage
o image
o story
o Also by limbic

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"Hottentot Venus" laid to rest 200 years after her abduction | 29 comments (18 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
Horrible. (3.75 / 4) (#1)
by graal on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 10:39:10 AM EST

What a horrible story. Contentwise, I mean. Thanks for bringing it some attention.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)

I see this as a classical failing of science (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by psychologist on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 10:50:09 AM EST

Basically, when a particular physical charasteristic is viewed and measured, how can science actually say that it is more or less primitive than a control object?

For example, the crocodile has got uneven and mishapen teeth, when compared to a rabbit. The crocodile has not has its teeth changed for millenia, but does that make those particular teeth more primitive? They do their job just as well as those of the rabbit.

Even though this display is horrible, and I am tempted to blame the behaviour of the people on racism, I know it is not so. In that time, such figures were probably very strange to the Europeans. In the same way, if a European were captured and displayed in Africa at that time, there probably would have been as many viewers.

Not exactly... (4.25 / 4) (#15)
by Xeriar on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 11:42:13 AM EST

Even though this display is horrible, and I am tempted to blame the behaviour of the people on racism, I know it is not so. In that time, such figures were probably very strange to the Europeans. In the same way, if a European were captured and displayed in Africa at that time, there probably would have been as many viewers.

They thought of eachother as exotic... The same was true of Oriental and Native American (the account I read was Incan) 'groups'.

It wasn't until Spain started their mass slavery charter in 1604 that people seriously began to think of one as being inferior to another. Two centuries of enslaving a group of people will change a mindset, certainly.

When I'm feeling blue, I start breathing again.
[ Parent ]

Abducted? (4.16 / 12) (#6)
by craigtubby on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 10:59:06 AM EST

You say

The story of Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus, concerns the ritual humiliation and violation of a young African woman who was abducted to Europe in 1809 and subjected to vile humiliations and brutality.

Yet, in one of the links the that you supply the following caight the eye

"When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman's public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor."

So was she abducted? How about a different title "African woman travels to Europe to make money from foolish Europeans, then dies."

try to make ends meet, you're a slave to money, then you die.

* Webpage *

I agree this does contradict the theme... (4.00 / 3) (#10)
by limbic on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 11:25:14 AM EST

When I read that I was also surprised, but I am unable to verify the claim. If it turns out to be true, I don't think it makes much of difference. is a woman who has spent her whole life as  slave and is being displayed as a circus animal 6000 miles from her homeland really able to speak freely and honestly about her motives?  

Unfortunately much of the detailed information about Sarah on the Internet is contradictory.

You might notice that her date of abduction, birth and even death are stated as being different depending on the source.

One source says she was left Africa in the company of an English doctor, another that she left with her owner ( a Dutchman). I find it quite confusing, but I do not think it detracts from the horror of what was inflicted on her.

[ Parent ]

Interesting (3.66 / 3) (#17)
by FredBloggs on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 11:51:51 AM EST

choice of headline if you`re unsure. Perhaps put it in quotes?

[ Parent ]
Abducted may or may not be the right word... (4.20 / 5) (#14)
by mech9t8 on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 11:37:05 AM EST

...but it's hardly the bland situation you describe.

She was persuaded to go based on indubitably false pretenses (she agreed to go based on the idea that she'd "make her fortune"); I doubt she had any idea she'd be constantly paraded naked in cages, never mind subject to numerous "medical" exams.  I'm sure the only reason she continued the spectacles (if, in fact, that anecdote, which is only found in one source, is true) is because she knew she had no alternatives; indeed, once the public fascination with her wore off, she was forced to resort to prostitution.  Never mind the indignities her body was subject to after her death.

If she had merrily come to Europe, led a rich and happy life, and died wealthy, maybe your bland headline would be appropriate.  As it is, the current headline captures the spirit, if not the technical reality, of the situation.  After all, the countless girls that even today end up in the international prostitution rings often technically aren't "abducted".

[ Parent ]

Correct (3.75 / 4) (#20)
by RyoCokey on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 12:32:37 PM EST

Several times it mentions this fact, including that she'd first agreed to go with the doctor from her homeland for this project. Further details, like her showing up to parties dressed in feathers, and later turning to prostitution suggest she had much more control over her life than a "slave" or "sideshow exhibit."

While it is certainly a testament to the prevailing racial arrogance of the time, as well as mankind's ridicule of what is different, I really don't think this is a case "kidnapping and brutal abuse."

The troops returning home are worried. "We've lost the peace," men tell you. "We can't make it stick." - John Dos Passos
[ Parent ]
This is hard to write about now (4.25 / 4) (#9)
by IHCOYC on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 11:21:53 AM EST

Given the mummery of identity politics, anything that touches questions of race and sex is hard to discuss today. This is especially the case when it also provides an angle to portray the (understandable even if prurient) curiosity of Europeans two hundred years ago as some kind of racist barbarism. Your story itself probably does it about as well as can be expected; some of the links are a bit over the top.

The story of the Hottentot Venus is not that obscure; IIRC, I learned about it first in Carl Sagan's Broca's Brain or Leslie Fiedler's Freaks. The site name "The Monstrous Feminine in Art and Literature," its nouned adjective itself a syntactic signal, definitely crosses into MEGO territory, though.
"Complecti antecessores tuos in spelæis stygiis Tartari appara," eructavit miles primus.
"Vix dum basiavisti vicarium velocem Mortis," rediit Grignr.
--- Livy

Phew, I'm sure glad we don't do that any more! (3.84 / 13) (#18)
by Rogerborg on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 12:18:01 PM EST

Incidentally, anyone want to trade pictures of hot young asian teens? They wouldn't be doing the photoshoots if they didn't want to, right? And whoo-ee, all of those little yellow gals are so hot and horny that it's just gotta be genetic. Hell, I might even pull out my credit card and buy me a cute little Phillipino bride!

Yup, I'm sure glad we've moved on since Sarah's time.

"Exterminate all rational thought." - W.S. Burroughs

Exceptionally well written, but for context... (4.76 / 13) (#22)
by Rogerborg on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 01:13:16 PM EST

There is some possibility that Sarah was a willing and profiting participant. What, women don't choose to dance naked in cages for money today? The question is whether Sarah was putting on an act and was free to stop any time that she wanted to. In her own words, she was. If we choose to disbelieve her, then we're forcing her into the role of victim rather than accepting that she could have been as strong - and as mercenary - as any modern female stripper or porn star. Denying her that possibility says a lot more about us than it does about her.

Bear in mind that in England in 1810 you could also find the boxer Tom Molineaux, a free black man, trained by Bill Arnold, another free black man. In 1810, Molineaux went toe to toe, for his own profit, with the legendary white heavyweight boxing champion Tom Crib.

There is some possibility that Molineaux won the opportunity through marketing spin and that the fight was considered a novelty entertainment by the spectators, who expected to see Crib demonstrate the inherent superiority of the white man. They quickly discovered that they were watching something quite different. The fight went to fifty five minutes and thirty nine knockdowns, and Molineaux came within a whisker of winning.

His performance drew flowing admiration from white commentators forced to reevaluate their racial prejudices. There is a touch of relieved condescention to some of the comments, but there is also an undeniable core of genuine respect for Molineaux's skill and strength of character. He forced them to see past their ideas of the cowardly black or the brute savage, and made them evaluate him as a man, of calm and steely determination and cold clinical skill. Nobody - least of all the bloody and battered Tom Cribb - walked away from that event thinking of black men as inferior.

That said, my personal suspicion is that Sarah probably was exploited, but let's not automatically place people of colour into the victim role. It's easy to feel sorry for Sarah because of the way that Europeans viewed her as inferior, but there's an alternative view of Sarah as a shrewd businesswoman of confident character, smiling slyly as she charged dumb skinny assed white folks to watch her stand around. Let's keep an open mind on this.

"Exterminate all rational thought." - W.S. Burroughs

I was tempted to expand this story to include... (4.50 / 4) (#24)
by limbic on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 01:55:09 PM EST

...Tom and the general phenomenon of Ethnological Shows but I was short of time and courage. There is a wonderful book on Tom Molineaux called Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser of "Flashman" fame. I strongly recommend it.

[ Parent ]
And Here's More Context! (4.50 / 4) (#25)
by superdiva on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 01:57:18 PM EST

In the antebellum years, Frederick Douglass was a traveling lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society. In My Bondage, My Freedom Douglass mentions that the abolitionists preferred that he keep to his story of slavery and bondage and leave the "facts" to them.

There was a huge market in the north to hear the accounts of brutality and degradation as they were tantalizing tales to white sympathizers, a realization I'm sure Douglass and other ex-slaves shared. Nevertheless, if there was an opportunity to use the abolition lecture circuit to change public opinion about African Americans, Douglass and others used it to their advantage.
[ Parent ]
I've actually heard of her... (3.40 / 5) (#23)
by millman on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 01:36:47 PM EST

About 3 years ago I took a "Cultural Studies" class at my University, and we spent a day covering this person.  I had never heard of her and the story was really quite fascinating.  

What I'd like to add is that along with the "racial inferiority" slant were strong undertones of white European fear of their OWN sexual inferiority in relation to Africans.  I haven't read through many of the links yet to see if this is examined.  Definately worth looking into.

In a world full of thieves, the only crime is getting caught.

Even Great Cthulhu is shocked at the (2.66 / 3) (#26)
by CthulhuCravesSouls on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 05:52:02 PM EST

depravity of Mankind. Yet another good reason to immolate this world when the Stars Are Right.

It still goes on today (2.50 / 2) (#27)
by hans on Sun Jul 28, 2002 at 11:14:49 PM EST

Except now its under the term "ghetto booty" My roommate is a very attractive female who can't go out to a club without be harassed by the local gentry. Her ass really isn't that big, its just noticeable. I'd call it a favored quality, but you know how insecure we all are about our appearance. Especially when men make pigs of themselves.

Ota Benga (5.00 / 2) (#28)
by livus on Mon Jul 29, 2002 at 02:49:53 AM EST

Of related interest is Ota Benga, a member of the San of Africa who was held as an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. The details surrounding his appearance in the zoo are complex, but highlight the dangers of an oversimplifying, ahistorical approach. We can't apply today's criteria in terms of "free will", profit, or, conversely, exploitation, to scenarios which happened over 100 years ago. http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html

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Very interesting... (none / 0) (#29)
by limbic on Mon Jul 29, 2002 at 07:47:09 AM EST

..thanks for the heads-up.

[ Parent ]
"Hottentot Venus" laid to rest 200 years after her abduction | 29 comments (18 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
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